Places of Power and Leverage within Gaming Infrastructures

 Battlezone, Atari - 1980

Battlezone, Atari - 1980

The first patent for the video game, Goldsmith and Mann’s 1948 “cathode-ray tube amusement device,” [1] was the beginning of the mass marketing of virtual realities through gaming, creating the virtual infrastructure necessary to establish a new data space as entangled and stochastic as its physical double. The development of virtual reality and its increasing spatial complexification has allowed these parallel worlds to form autonomous virtual infrastructures decoupled from the arcade, able to infiltrate real-world economies, laws, and militaries through the cheats and paradoxes of gamespace. The increasing imbrication of the virtual with the real demands a new understanding of the tactical spaces of gaming infrastructure.

“From their inception, graphical games deployed symbolism and metaphor; graphics were imbued with a metaphorical value to foster an immersive relationship to play. The associational metaphor enabled the user to suspend disbelief and intuitively relate the gameworld to the real world ... Without the use of real-world metaphors, gameplay would be vague and ambiguous.” [2]

How have these technologies been re-scripted from their origins as logic games, to the arcade game, and today to the Massively Multiplayer Online Game. These MMOGs have created virtual realities so complex that they can sustain their own economies, driven by enough financial volume to have an actual effect in real markets. These worlds have become so convincing that the gaming platforms have been successfully re-appropriated into military tactical training games. This paper proposes a spatial argument as a partial answer to these questions and as a potential provocation for the targeting and development of new tactical spaces. It is the increasing spatial dimension of these virtual realities that have provided these simulated worlds with enough room to develop their own shadow-economies and para-ecologies, existing as an asymmetrical mirror to the real. What has been created is a guerilla-reality endowed with the authority of presence. 


In the subscription-based MMORPG of World of Warcraft, users wander through the realm of Azeroth, exploring the game world, fighting monsters, and participating in quests, all to increase their avatar’s level and thus the richness of the user’s experience. The gaming economy of WoW is driven by the amassment of weapons, armor, magical items, and most importantly, gold. However, because the game currency of MMOG’s can be exchanged for actual money, the virtual reality is enabled to permeate the economic and labor structures of the real world:

“There is nothing virtual about the money spent on such games, and the goods earned and traded inside the games are virtual only in the sense that other computer documents are virtual ... Rather than an imaginary economy ‘bleeding over’ into physical reality, then, it seems perhaps more productive to understand phenomena like WoW and EverQuest as extension of physical economies into our own ideological imaginaries.” [3]

Although widely considered cheating by gamers, high-level avatar accounts in World of Warcraft can be bought and sold online with real money (a process called Real Money Trading), allowing users to jump past the time and effort needed to achieve a high level expertise to play in a more advanced realm. New industries have emerged such as Gold Farming and Power-Leveling, “surreal” economies employing an estimated 100,000 workers [4] to game in virtual sweatshops to accumulate gold and high-level avatars, convertible into real currency.  The seeming absurdity of this exchange of virtual to real currency, however, represents a clearly quantifiable and rational commoditization of labor, one that is just as easy to exploit in these virtual labor structures as it is in real world workplaces. For instance, in these gaming sweatshops, a Level 70 avatar represents an investment of 120 hours of gaming, for which the average Gold Farmer would receive on average only $250. [5] In “The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer,” Julian Dibbell writes:

“M.M.O.’s are just as much economies as games... for players lacking time or patience for the grind [of WoW], there has always been another means of acquiring virtual loot: real money.” [6]

It is through this tactic that gold-minding sweatshops have utilized the paradoxes of virtual value to exploit real world absurdities of commodification and labor. The surreal similarity between the managerial strategies of the textile sweatshop and the gaming behaviors of these digital sweatshops reveal the escalating irrationality in the blur between the virtual and the real. The workers who inhabit gameland exist as part of a real economic system that has smuggled in the hacks of the virtual to legitimize an already wretched labor structure. These sweatshops are using the spatial conduits of the game’s cheats to create a new method of exploitation perfectly compatible with existing real-world labor systems.


Moreover, as the simulated spaces of the training program become indistinguishable from the video game, another cheat of warfare’s virtual double infiltrates the real. America’s Army, a video game developed by the US military, is a publicly distributed and free game that also functions as a recruitment system. Containing the virtual infrastructure of recruiting stations within the space of the game, users can literally enlist in the Army while playing. Noah Shachtman writes in “Shoot ‘Em Up and Join the Army:”

“this is the first time the military has crafted a game solely for propaganda purposes… you could just click on that big button in the game’s top left corner. You’d be taken to the Army website – where a whole, new world awaits.” [7]

This mixing of gaming violence and real violence, this stealthy non-consensual training of the public, becomes the quintessential symbol of the alignment of virtual surrealism with real-world absurdities. Is the virtual gamespace of war creating an ideological script more potent and insidious than its physical double? Driven by the industries of entertainment and spectacle, game space utilizes the ambiguity embedded within its rational scripts to masquerade fantasies as truth and impossibility as realistic expectations. This fraudulent reality absorbs the contradictions of real-world absurdities and dangerously allows these paradoxes to sanction systems of exploitation. It is the encoded magic and secret cheats embedded in the virtual infrastructures of a complex gamespace that are likely the most dangerous systems existing unchecked today. The alchemies and double speak of this other world are acquiring mass and momentum in our real realm, infiltrating and perpetuating the absurdities already embedded in real systems of economics, labor, law, and war.


1. Goldsmith, Thomas and Estle Ray Mann. Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device. Patent 2455992. 14 Dec. 1948.

2. Dariusz Jacob Boron. “A Short History of Digital Gamespace.” Space Time Play. (Basel:  Birkhauser, 2007): 26.

3. David Golumbia. “Games Without Play.” New Literary History 40.1. (Winter 2009): 195-6.

4. Julian Dibbell. “The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer.” The New York Times, 17 June 2007.

5. David Golumbia. “Games Without Play.” New Literary History 40.1. (Winter 2009): 195-6.

6. Julian Dibbell. “The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer.” The New York Times, 17 June 2007.

7. Shachtman, Noah. “Shoot ‘Em Up and Join the Army.” Wired.com. 07 Apr. 2002.